10 July 2006

Scientific Thinking for Energy and the Environment

Billmon, one of the more amusing bloggers out here, recently wrote an acerbic rendition of Al Gore's quest to moderate global warming. However, the bulk of his post is not about global warming per say but rather a grouchy old man railing about how thick-headed the people of this world are. While the gist of his argument is true, it is also not novel. If you went to Victorian times and took a survey of intellectual blowhards of that period, I am sure that they would feel that an even largely segment of the population is composed of blockheads then we would currently. This is not to say that we should be satisfied with the way our education system currently works. Clearly it doesn't go fair enough in training the minds of young pupils. Spoon-feeding facts into someone's brain isn't useful if you lack the capacity to properly utilize them.

Many people lack the ability to differentiate science from pseudo-science and moreover could not even suggest how one might go about doing so. When I write a post about wind or biofuels and then follow it up a couple of days later with another discussion that pans my original talking points it is not because I lack "strength of conviction" or some other absurd form of weakness. I challenge myself because I am fully aware of the fallibility of my assumptions and the need to constantly assess my position to ensure that it is quantitatively factually correct.

The only way to enlighten people is to slowly chip away at their preconceptions of the world. The idea of critical thinking as a standard practice needs to insidiously infiltrate the manner in which people think. This is especially important in the world of energy and the environment which are now so interwoven to form a Gordian knot. To me, when an environmental group such as Greenpeace boils down their energy policy to solar and wind, it is just as intellectually dishonest as CEI's "Carbon Dioxide is Life" campaign. Both policies can be easily demonstrated to be bogus.

I would like to discus some of the basics of scientific thinking. This is adapted from a small book, "Miniature Guide on Scientific Thinking," by the Foundation for Critical Thinking. Unfortunately this doesn't appear to be available on their website any longer.

Development of the Scientific Mind
  1. Unscientific thinker: Unaware of significant problems in thinking about scientific issues. Hence one is unable to distinguish science from pseudo-science.
  2. Challenged thinker: Beings to recognize that one often fails to think scientifically when considering scientific questions.
  3. Beginning Scientific Thinker: Tries to improve scientific thinking but lacks regular practice in it.
  4. Practicing Scientific Thinker: Recognizes the need to regularly practice scientific thinking in order to maintain proficiency.
  5. Advanced Scientific Thinker: Advances by maintaining regular practice in scientific thinking.
  6. Accomplished Scientific Thinker: Good habits of scientific thought have become second nature.
Obviously one needs to advance, step-by-painful-step from one stage to the next. As the text puts it:
Scientific thinkers routinely apply intellectual standards to the elements of scientific reasoning as they develop the traits of a scientific mind.
So what are these standards, and how do lead us to scientific thinking?

Essential Intellectual Standards
must be applied to

Elements of Scientific Thought
Points of View
Sources of Error

to develop

Traits of a Scientific Mind
Confidence in Reason
Intellectual Empathy
Intellectual Courage
Wikipedia is not a bad place to start if you don't understand the difference between precision and accuracy, correlation and causation, or inference and implication. If you would like some less escapist summer reading, and would like to start the process of training your mind, Carl "Billions and billions" Sagan's book "The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark" is a good place to start. Better yet, give it to a friend once you've read it. For a more humourous look at the world from a skeptic's perspective, Bob Park's What's New is a weekly snarky look at events in the USA that are relevant to the world of science.


Anonymous said...

Is this the guide you speak of?

A Miniature Guide to Scientific Thinking

Robert McLeod said...

Yeah I think that's it.

Anonymous said...

That URL is for a short PDF excerpt - the full document is available for purchase at:


This is one of a set of 16 or so critical thinking guides: